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Finding Water in the Desert by Jessica Prescott-Smith, Northwestern Student

Splitting Samples in the LabThe selection of topics I’ve studied in college has been eclectic to say the least, and this year my courses led me to the question: “What would it be like to work in a laboratory doing independent research?” I mentioned this question to a professor, who gave me the e-mail of a colleague who runs a lab at the University of Arizona, whose research focuses on chemical analysis of Arizona’s limited water supply. Understandably, they are usually in need of extra hands in the summer, when most people try to escape the heat, even while the summer monsoons replenish Arizona’s aquifer.

Being a native of Arizona, I wasn’t afraid of a little heat, and set up an interview with the Principal Investigator. After we met, he introduced me to the post-doc who would be my supervisor. She shared with me her vision of taking samples from a mountain stream during a monsoon storm, to determine what the rain picks up from the surrounding forest and deposits in the stream. I eagerly signed on.

The first thing I learned about conducting scientific research is it moves much more slowly than the typical movie montage. So began weeks of reading, teaching myself vocabulary as I sifted through scientific papers with a dictionary, one sentence at a time. After four weeks (a greatly expedited process), I finally had an idea of a project I could carve out for myself. Using an infrared microscope, I would determine the chemical content of the particles picked up by the stream over the course of a storm. I formed my first hypothesis, only to have all of my assumptions proved illogical in a thirty minute meeting with the P.I. No matter, I began again and reformed my hypothesis, just in time for the first big storm.

The desert goes through a breathtaking transformation during the monsoon season. The rain appears suddenly, attacking in torrents, flooding rivers and then departs just as suddenly. After the rain, the Arizona air is thick with the smell of creosote, and thousands of hibernating toads emerge from underground burrows in the sand to soak up the water. They bleat through the night, sounding a bit like a herd of disgruntled goats.

Sampling in the FieldTwo days ago, we got to put all of our preparation to the test as we headed into the field to collect samples. I had been to the top of the mountain before, to get a feel for the site and help install some solar panels, but today it was wet and cold. We stood in the river, sampling bottles at the ready, during the downpour, receiving plenty of incredulous looks from hikers running from the storm. I’m happy to say we got our samples, and after organizing and prepping them in the lab until midnight yesterday, they are ready for analysis. Now it’s time to see if it all paid off. From my experience thus far, it seems more likely that we will fail several times before we get an exciting data set, but hopefully that will make success all the sweeter.

About the NU Intern Blogger Program
This summer, over 50 Northwestern University students will be sharing stories about what they are experiencing at their internships from across the country and internationally. Each week new students will share an inside look at what it means to be an intern. Please contact Betsy Gill, Assistant Director, Internship Services if you have any questions.

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